Afrasian Imaginaries

My current research argues that the Indian Ocean’s African and Asian communities with their millennia long history of trade and exchange have important contributions to make in our understanding of structures and effects of capitalism. To better understand the mechanizations of our neoliberal contemporary, we need a fuller history of what precedes this moment. Contemporary cultural workers harness this past in their meditations on current political, social, and economic crises and in so doing, they trouble the promises of the postcolonial state. In exposing the fault lines of this moment, which we can attribute to neocolonial imperatives, the literary and cultural archive I’ve constructed in Afrasian Imaginaries: Global Capitalism and Labor Migration in Indian Ocean Fiction, 1990 — 2015 asks us to confront the ghosts of a deeper, more entangled past.

To put it another way, this project participates in a robust interdisciplinary endeavor that questions the distinction between freedom and enslavement, or independent and colonized. The organizational logic of the imperial archive partitioned connected histories; a process that U.S. empire further elaborated upon through the model of Area Studies, where intellectual energies were focused primarily around landed geographies, such as Africa, South Asia, or the Caribbean thus it minimized the possibility of studying the networks between such spaces not only in the contemporary moment or the post World War II period, but it worked backwards in time to impose that spatial configuration in earlier temporalities.

Afrasian Imaginaries focuses on twentieth and twenty-first century cultural texts from African and Asian Indian Ocean communities that offer counter narratives to the overwhelmingly Eurocentric ones available to us. Focusing on representations of historical and contemporary Afro-Asian multilateral movements across the Indian Ocean, I recast narratives of global capitalism that foreground systems of trade and exchange that refuse to assimilate easily into the prevailing notion that EuroAmerican modernity created capitalism and imposed it upon the formerly colonized world. Indian Ocean fictions and theoretical perspectives draw on the multi-layered histories of the ocean’s littoral communities to attune us to alternative disciplinary structures. In so doing, they offer resources for interrupting and subverting the disciplinary mechanisms of control, surveillance, and exploitation that characterize global capitalisms.

Chapter 1 focuses on Shailja Patel’s multi-genre text Migritude to review the promises of postcoloniality: of liberal subjecthood, the modern nation-state, and their integration into a global economy. By tracing the reanimations of the performative, oral, and reflective dimensions of the text, I develop a feminist materialist methodology that allows me to elucidate the silences and erasures of the colonial archive and the postcolonial state — a practice that supplements the theoretical frameworks I call upon in subsequent chapters. The second chapter pairs Abdulrazak Gurnah’s 2001 By the Sea and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s 2006 Wizard of the Crow to analyze genealogies of capitalism through two cornerstones of Indian Ocean migrations: the historic long distance commodities trade and the contemporary movement of students and young professionals. Chapter 3 considers migration from rural to urban areas to deconstruct narratives of Asia ‘Rising’ in Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire. The fourth chapter juxtaposes narratives of debt bondage in East Africa (Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise) and slavery in Western Asia (Benyamin’s Goat Days) to examine how technologies of unfreedom pervade in circuits of global capitalism and labor migrations. Chapter 5 turns to Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy to investigate resonances of nineteenth century capitalisms in its contemporary permutations, while arguing for connected histories of the Indian and Atlantic Ocean Worlds. The epilogue meditates on recent student and youth activist movements, such as #FeesMustFall, Rhodes Must Fall, #JNUStudentUnion, and the Umbrella Movement, to understand better how our institutions of knowledge remain complicit in the perpetuation of coloniality.

Together, these chapters craft broader relational analyses of global capitalisms, illustrating how an Indian Ocean archive of imaginative works uses histories of the region as a resource to re-articulate relationships across the ocean’s littoral. Circumventing center-periphery approaches to studies of the Global South, Afrasian Imaginaries develops a framework for understanding the intersections of postcolonial statecraft in south-south contexts, the circulation of ideologies of freedom, and the transfer of technologies of discipline and surveillance in labor zones across the Indian Ocean.


Muslims and Terror in U.S. Popular Culture

My second project investigates intersections of global capitalisms and carceral statecraft through the optics of terror, including its racializing and gendering impulses. The archive for this project ranges widely, from carceral memoirs and fiction to political speeches and government documents, to digital/social media. Linking sites in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and North America, these sources productively complicate what terror is and who terrorizes whom.

Within this larger project, I have begun work on an essay that studies Muslims artists, writers, and activists self-representation and articulation of terror and terrorism in popular cultural works, from television shows to podcasts. My first presentation was on Aziz Ansari's Master of None. A short portion is excerpted below.

“People call me terrorist and I get pulled out of airport security lines,”
Dev explains to his parents when confronted about his relationship to Islam, the religion his family practices. Excerpted from the widely acclaimed Netflix hit Master of None, this episode — entitled ‘Religion’ —  is singular in its rendering of a dynamic Muslim family. Even as the show hews closely to dominant representations of the South Asian diaspora in the US (highly skilled migrants who arrived after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965), it flips the script, too: by showing moderate Muslims, an Indian Muslim family, and, most impressive, a sustained dialogue about being Muslim in the US today. Dev’s claim that his relationship to Islam means being called “terrorist” and profiled by the TSA unveils how being Muslim has become a signifier for terrorism even in the hearts and minds of people who grow up in the faith.


I draw on Junaid Rana’s theorization of the ‘racialized Muslim’ to consider the implications of Dev’s sense of self and faith being structured with taunts and jokes about him being a terrorist. I conclude by turning to the Buzzfeed podcast See Something Say Something, which bills itself as a conversation about being Muslim in America, to argue that Dev’s experience — as striking as it is on its own — should be placed within a spectrum of being Muslim, both in the US and globally, and that it requires a broader analysis of terror and racialization.